Juvenile justice authorities across the country are learning a lesson that took hold in Jackson County years ago.
Most troubled kids don’t get better the more time they spend locked up. They usually get worse.
And that’s why authorities are locking up fewer kids.
The national rate of juvenile confinement fell by about half from 1997 to 2011, the latest year for which nationwide figures are available, according to a new study by the Pew Charitable Trusts.
In hard numbers, the new figures show that judges across the country sentenced 33,472 fewer juvenile offenders in 2011 to what used to be called “reform school” than they did in 1997.
And that’s good news both for kids and for states that no longer have to maintain expensive institutions for offenders who can be treated better outside locked residential facilities, said Adam Gelb, director of Pew’s Public Safety Performance Project.
“The juvenile system has been ahead of the adult criminal justice system in moving toward policies and programs that put offenders in the right places — that is, the places that will hold them accountable for their behavior at a fair price to taxpayers,” Gelb said.
Juvenile authorities in Jackson County long have worked to keep youth offenders out of the state system and, when possible, even out of pretrial detention.
“If you keep kids in detention, those kids are more likely to end up in residential placement,” said Jackson County juvenile officer Mary Marquez. “Detention is bad for kids. There’s plenty of research that shows that it puts them deeper in the system and impacts their behavior and actions.”
County officials have found they can keep the community safer, save money and provide better service to many kids by keeping them at home and then wrapping the child and family with counseling, parenting programs and other services.
“That is true for Jackson County,” said Pam Behle, the family court’s director of assessment and development services. “We’ve shown a rapid decline in confinement.”
One contributing factor to the national decline in juvenile incarceration is a steady drop in the arrests of youth offenders.
Officials have seen that here too.
In 1997, law enforcement made 5,089 referrals for delinquency to Jackson County juvenile judges. By 2011, that had fallen to 1,343 referrals.
The crime rates in the 1990s frightened some in law enforcement, who predicted that the juvenile justice system would be swamped by “waves of super-predators” needing hardened prisons to hold them, Gelb said.
Instead, juvenile crime rates have fallen, with simple demographics getting some of the credit, Gelb said. As the millennial generation continues to age, the population simply has fewer teenagers to arrest.
Jackson County’s aversion to sending local offenders into the state system goes back to 1907, when the county founded the McCune Residential Center. For more than a century, boys who had been found guilty of a crime were kept in a county facility, rather than being sent into the state system.
But with the county’s success in keeping young offenders out of secure custody, McCune’s population numbers dropped to the point where it no longer made sense to spend $2 million a year to keep it open.
In 2011, the courts placed 40 boys at McCune. Five years before, 147 had lived there. McCune closed late last year.
According to federal statistics, Missouri hasn’t made as much progress as most other states in reducing juvenile commitments since 1997, but it also started from a much better position.
Then, Missouri’s juvenile commitment rate ranked 14th lowest in the country, but that drifted to 35th by 2011 as other states also focused on keeping children out of confinement.
“Missouri, traditionally, has not had a high commitment rate,” Marquez said.
Over the Pew study period, Kansas placed about 300 fewer children into state custody in 2011 than it did in 1997, keeping it closer than Missouri to the national average in rates of improvement.
The Kansas and Missouri commitment rates are almost identical, but Kansas has shown greater improvement since 1997, federal statistics show.
In Missouri, juvenile courts in Jackson County commit far fewer juvenile offenders to the state’s care than their counterparts in any other urban court circuit in the state, according to the Missouri Division of Youth Services.
Jackson County committed 44 in 2012, while the city of St. Louis, with less than half of Jackson County’s population, sent 85.
And Jasper County, with less than one-fifth of Jackson County’s population, sent 79, according to state figures.
And about as many kids were committed in Missouri for “juvenile offenses” — such as truancy, curfew violations and underage drinking — as those sent for serious violent felonies, such as robbery and assault.
State authorities say they are working to trim the number of youths committed for “juvenile offenses” by funding more counseling, education and diversion programs.
And in January 2012, the Missouri Supreme Court updated its rule requiring local courts to use a standard risk assessment tool when evaluating juveniles for pretrial detention.
Gelb suggested that officials also could consider bringing modern supervision technology, such as GPS monitoring and sweat patches for drug and alcohol testing, to the juvenile justice courtroom.
“These things didn’t exist in the 1980s and 1990s, when prisons became the weapon of choice in the fight against crime,” Gelb said.